Better Decision making – The Gita and Proust to our rescue!

Why do we often make the wrong decisions?

I came across an incredible insight from contemplating on a few messages in the Gita recently – it talks about the two powerful approaches we all have for connecting/ making decisions. The first is using discriminatory intelligence (buddhi in sanskrit) where we use our reasoning power to decide the right path forward. The second is the emotive aspect (manas in sanskrit) – where decisions are based on emotional considerations a (and yeah – we often then force fit a “rational” reason to support the decision!). And the awesome insight is that we use the wrong tool for the wrong context – flip it around and we should be ok.

So for instance – if an acquaintance’s relative dies, we use our discriminative facility and tell them exactly how to process this loss. We share quotes on the fragility and the fleetingness of life and provide ideas to help the person deal with the loss. Chances often are that the person is not in the right frame to take this piece of advice – they are too emotionally wrought – and we end up not connecting at all.

Now, when we are faced with a similar disaster, we use emotive reasoning instead of the discriminatory one. We play the scene over and over in our minds and bring up emotions of anger, guilt, denial – we struggle to move on with life for a very, very long time.

Our ancient wisdom seems to say – why not flip this around? In the first case, use some emotional connect – put yourself in the person’s shoes and you’ll know what they feel like. And your response can be based on their nature (some will want to be alone, some would want a listener as they vent their frustration, some would just want a shoulder to cry on). In short, you are bringing in some empathy.

And when dealing with disasters at home, using the buddhi may be more helpful. This requires a complete acceptance of what has happened and how one feels (Sad/ helpless etc) and then permit oneself to “without blame” process the pain/ grieve/ provide any other outlets as much as required. The acceptance of the situation and directly feeling the emotion will bring some peace at the end as we close out unresolved questions.

For such large scenarios, this makes sense. But how then can we decide in the case of smaller everyday decisions – which situation calls for which response? I guess Proust has an answer in his “impartial observer”. Proust recommends that we imagine an impartial observer by our side at all times – and we ask ourselves what will he do? And when we do that, the impartial observer can pick the right response from the above – and that can lead to some progress.

Would you agree with this approach?

Success in a VUCA world – ancient wisdom

It’s a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambigous). How do we survive here?

I guess the best answers will come from other times that were even more VUCA than this. For instance let’s travel back to the times of the “Gita” which is a dialogue occurring in a battlefield with both sides having weapons drawn and ready to fight. Or the times of Marcus A’s “Meditations” which chronicle’s a Roman emperor’s thoughts during a period of extreme uncertainty on all fronts. The answers these tomes which were written to counter a VUCA world and have survived until now surely must have insights for us?

I guess so, lets check them out.

Volatility: The antitode to volatility seems to be in embracing it. Looking into the fear (albeit a watered down version) consciously gets the fear to flee. Seneca advised us to periodically fast so as to be rid of the fear of hunger – indeed to live occasionally a “life of poverty by choice” is liberating! Ignoring volatility until the odds are overwhelming is defintiely fatal – its better to get used to volatility periodically (you actually get stronger – there’s a superb explanation by Taleb on why this is so).

Of course, if you happen to own a lot of bitcoins, the advice is harder…..

Uncertain: The best way to handle uncertainity is to do two things:

a. Create strategies that have limited downside and lots of upside

b. Accept that you will work toward your plans, but in no way can you determine the outcome for sure

This is best encapsulated by a beautiful word “saranagati” – which by the way is not a misspelling for the Sarengeti national park! It can be translated as “thy will be done” – but setting up a situation in such a way that the downside is limited.

For instance, ascetics try to reason like an unwell child who cries for chocolate but is handed over some bitter medicine by their mother instead. It’s impossible for the child to understand the benefits of the medicine at this time – the only thing it can do is trust. So they set themselves up in such a way that they surrender to an higher ideal (god/eternal consciousness etc) and expend all their efforts in a system (yoga/ prayer/ meditation – whatever) they have investigated and trust to take them there. They also give up other desires (limited downside) and any failures related to the experience are but medicine for them – they remain steadfast in their goal.

Or in a more materialistic model, a businessman may invest in a venture and mentally write off the sum. If it succeeds big time – he’s happy (all upside). If it fails, that’s ok (he’s already written it off). The secret is in capping downside.

Complex: A series of rituals that unpack the complex into very many simple activities is the prescription. And in todays world you may want to then automate some of these simple ones as well! Unpacking the complex into many simple ones allows you to feel more in control and also refactoring where required with minimum impact to the whole (yeah unless it’s that butterfly whose wings cause rainfall across continents!)

This I believe is why all ancient wisdom is encapsulated into a series of small rituals that remove the complexity of a situation and build positive muscle memory through successes (its easier to do a simple ritual successfully) over time as well.

Ambiguous: Its tough to even see if we are winning sometimes. Your portfolio goes up and up and up and it seems like it will forever. And just as you are preparing your winner’s speech, it disappears out of sight. The antidote for ambiguity is a very simple definition of what you are after (good) and what you are not (bad).

Ancient wisdom has this too. Good/ truth is what does not change (permanent through time). Bad/ untruth is what can change rightaway. And it also adds a third component (mithya) which stands for stuff that is relatively stable (say a man’s life – for 100 years he’s alive). So just looking at these three – give you a view and a metric of how you are doing. In the portfolio example – transient movements shouldn’t be your metric of success – you have established criteria irrespective of other factors that decide your actions.

So that’s one lens on looking at a VUCA world. Do you agree?

How to stay happy all the time (or at least be less anxious)!

It’s that time of the year, when everyone is actively looking for a “Kabali” ticket. Filing your taxes and watching Kabali – are the only two worthwhile goals for the month! The tribes on Whatsapp are profusely sharing  reviews/ opinions/ experiences on the movie – read them all and you realise an important fact – most of them are comparisons:

  1. Kabali rocks, way too good when compared to his earlier movie Lingaa
  2. The movie’s good, but not quite in the Baasha class….
  3. Thalaivar’s movie appeals globally. Almost like Muthu gathered popularity in japan, this one is likely too everywhere…….

You get the idea – everywhere the movie is judged, appreciated and rejoiced – and the degree of appreciation depends not on the intrinsic quality of the movie itself but on its relative compare with an ideal in the speaker’s mind.

Which brings me round to today’s topic – on how to be happy (or at least less anxious), irrespective of the situations we find ourselves in. As always, the ancients had this nailed down perfectly. When something bad/ undesirable happened, in their trademark, pithy way they had this to say (translated form Tamil – and not very well at that!)

“Bad luck that was to have taken your head, just took away your head-dress! Be thankful, persevere!”

In short, their remedy was for you to imagine the greater misfortunes that could have occurred but didn’t – a remedy that instantly calmed your mind. While seeming simple, it’s a remarkable cure. Let me elaborate with an example:

You slam your car against an obstacle and get your car dented (I recently did by the way!) and immediately start fretting over what you could have done better. You playback videos of alternate scenarios (With dent-less cars as the outcome of course!) in you mind – you could have driven slower, taken a better road, looked at the weather and chosen a more clement time to venture out etc. etc. Then the senior-most member in your family consoles you with the above proverb in her typically compassionate way. And you realize that the accident is actually much less severe that you imagine it to be. Consider the worse alternatives to a car dented but no other casualties;

–          The pain, grief and worry if you had hit an animal (or god forbid) a villager instead of the inanimate object

–          What if a drunken driver had hit your car at speed (and god knows in the early hours, there are many around!)

–          What if a tire had burst instead on the highway and you had lost control

The scenarios are endless – and from a pure probability standpoint are just as likely as that freak accident. As this realization dawns on you, you are grateful – thankful that a more disastrous outcome didn’t result and as a bonus you also become lot more mindful (perhaps decreasing the odds of future accidents as well!).

You can also apply it to situations where you are playing “victim” in over-drive mode. For instance, let’s say you have to go and inform a team member that their much awaited promotion is not happening.  You castigate the world and your system for being unfair (they could have accommodated an extra slot for him, the system seems pre-disposed toward another group etc. etc.). In short, the perfect moment to try out our miraculous medicine – the proverb from above. Apply it – and you ask yourself –  isn’t this task (distasteful as it is) so much better than for instance:

  1. The doctor who has to let his non-smoking patient know he has tested positively for cancer of the lungs?
  2. The policeman who has to inform his colleague’s wife of her husband’s death in a random, drive by shooting – being plagued by guilt himself for staying alive and not being able to have helped out.

And so it goes. There’s always a worse thing that could have happened -and therefore always a reason to stay grateful to providence. Further as Rumi quotes:

Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.

Its hard to internalise this though because we tend to compare our performances and abilities with those who appear to be lesser qualified than us and our misfortunes with those who are apparently luckier. Just shifting the comparisons will make life a lot less burdensome.

I try the approach out for a day – it seems to work everywhere. A slow driver who makes you wait for a signal more – check. A random motorcyclist who nicks your car – check. You don’t get tickets for Kabali on the first weekend – check.

You also tend to appreciate all the good things that have happened in your life a lot better. And that truly is the icing on the cake.

A hot cup of coffee on a cold evening – enjoy the heavenly experience (imagine Siberian prison life if you can for a really powerful view of what could have happened had you been born in another time, another place – this is what one of the world’s best ever writers (Dostovesky) went through!). Should you receive an award – cherish it unconditionally (imagine what Marie Curie went through!). if you have a friend to call and crib on demand – you are indeed blessed – most people don’t have this luxury.

Indeed when you practice this for a while, the sense of “entitlement” that pervades our lives gets transmuted into a sense of “humility and awe”. And in itself, that sense of benediction is a miracle of the highest order. Wouldn’t you agree?